Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-March
Featuring an anthology in honor of Robert Silverberg, and a pair of magazines from TTA Press. Which brings me to the issue of genre boundaries.
It’s primarily a matter of time – mine, which isn’t infinite. Because I don’t have time to read everything, I decided some time ago to limit my reviews to SF and fantasy, omitting horror. But I also decided that I would try to take at least one look at every new publication sent to me. Unless it was outside the genre, or horror.
But fantasy comes in a broad spectrum, often shading into dark, at which point it often edges into horror territory. Where to draw that line? Publishers sometimes contact me, wondering, Why do you review Publication A but not Publication B? So when the publisher of TTA’s Interzone and Black Static asked me that question, I realized I’d taken the Horror label on its face instead of taking that one look into the stories, which I now do here, coming to the conclusion that the zine is indeed, in my estimation, horror.
- The Book of Silverberg, edited by Gardner Dozois and William Schafer
- Interzone #251, March/April 2014
- Black Static #39, March/April 2014
- Flytrap #11, February 2014
The Book of Silverberg, edited by Gardner Dozois and William Schafer
A festschrift honoring the Grand Master, featuring nine original stories by a younger generation of upcoming masters, each inspired by his classic works, such as “Nightwings” and Dying Inside, in a kind of dialogue or retroactive collaboration. Some are sequels, answering the readerly question What happened next? Others use the Silverbergian settings and themes in more independent stories.
Our genre rises from the shoulders of its giants, and the fiction we have now is in a way a conversation with the works of the past. The use of a collection like this one is both to inspire new connections between the original stories and the authors, and to inspire readers to seek out the originals – both readers who read them long ago and those of a younger generation who might not be familiar with such seminal works. The current volume is successful in both respects. One thing I do wish hadn’t been omitted, however, is a bibliography of Silverberg’s works. If these stories do inspire readers to seek the originals, a guide would be welcome.
“In Old Pidruid” by Kage Baker
Lord Valentine’s Castle
A light, warm-hearted piece set on Majipoor, during a local festival in which groups compete to make the best [ie, most clever] self-propelled float. This year, tension develops between two groups, one of which unwisely advertises itself as having the only all-human entry, thus displeasing the Hjort Master of the Revels.
“I have never seen anything so offensive in my life,” he said. “This would cause rioting! You are hereby disqualified from the competition for gross racial insult.”
No great issues here, just an amusing tale filled with Majipoorian references.
“Voyeuristic Tendencies” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
A sequel of sorts. Like David Selig, Maggie is a telepath who uses her powers to make a living – blackmailing adulterers. Because her lifestyle depends entirely on anonymity, she feels threatened when the old man finds her, and she’s less happy when he reveals that the ability is the result of a genetic mutation and that it always fades around age forty, as it had with him. But she has to believe him; she’s seen the empty place in his mind.
I found myself studying professional athletes, wondering how they lived with their inevitable decline. Most of them became regular citizens, like Selig. Forgotten except for dusty images on old sports programs, except for names and states in old record books.
I wouldn’t be forgotten, because I was never known.
Primarily, this is updating the theme of the original story, bringing it into the present – not only scientifically, but in terms of information technology.
“Bad News from the Vatican” by Mike Resnick
“Good News from the Vatican”
Sometimes the titles are obvious. A direct sequel to the story of electing the first robot Pope. The story is narrated by an American Cardinal who voted for Sixtus on the grounds of his personal saintliness and doctrinal soundness. Problems arise when the new Pope decides to excommunicate the Catholic American President when he refuses the directive to outlaw abortion in the US. But the President turns out to be as stubborn as the robot.
“I am speaking to you as President of the United States, the President of a country that was founded on certain principles, among which is the separation of church and state. And as your President,” he continued, the anger in his voice apparent to all who could hear him, “I will not be threatened by anyone for any reason. Not now, and not ever.”
It’s not a surprise that Resnick would pick this piece, as both authors have been interested in themes of faith and salvation. Unlike the original, the follow-up is more sincere than satirical, although there is still some fun at the expense of the ancient Italian Cardinals. At its heart, it’s a story of the drawbacks of perfection and absolute certainty in a human world, with a particularly apt concluding line.
It also raises some question about the future it depicts. We’re in the 24th century, when apparently the US is still the only major nation in which abortion is legal, although we don’t know exactly the extent of the laws worldwide. This suggests a profound change, yet it’s not possible to discern this from inside the Vatican where the characters are cloistered. Yet in the US, the Catholic population appears to have remained stable. The change that I find most difficult to credit, however, is in a US Congress in which the members stand unanimously, resolutely behind the elected President, regardless of their personal views, in the face of opposition from outside. While it might be nice to imagine such a state of affairs, no one today would doubt that in the prevailed corrupt and partisan political atmosphere, a large portion of the Congress would be ready to knife the President in the back under such a pretext. I can admire the fictional President Egan, but I can more easily believe in a robot Pope; both are too good to be true.
“The Jetsam of Disremembered Mechanics” by Caitlín Kiernan
Kiernan appears to be working from the expanded novel version of this material. Before the decline of Earth, genetic surgeons created several new races, among which are the Fliers. Now Aelita is on a quest for knowledge of the origin of her people, which seems to have been lost by the Rememberers Guild. In the course of her search, she begins to have portentous dreams of an underwater world.
Then an especially bright eel passed directly in front of Aelita, its flanks blazing with splotches of cobalt light. The fish regarded her with an eye as black and smooth as any night sky through which she had ever flown. The eye was, she saw, not actually an eye at all, but a living portal or doorway, and so she seemed presented with an option: to either allow that empty stare to draw her from here to somewhere else, or permit the eel to slither past and hope to eventually arrive at the painted vault, by one course or another.
Finally, out of resources, she consults the Guild of Somnambulists, who interpret dreams, and is sent on a journey too long for her wings to bear her.
It’s notable that while Aelita finds the secrets she sought, and more besides, the author doesn’t share them with readers; these mysteries, I assume, belong to Silverberg and are his alone to disclose. What we have here is not the mystery but the quest and the quester, a pilgrim unable to resist being called. In this, the current piece is very much indeed in the spirit of the original.
“Silverberg, Satan, and Me or Where I Got the Idea for My Silverberg Story for This Anthology” by Connie Willis
Not really a story but a piece of satirical speculation into Silverberg’s talent, success, and devilish good looks. Amusing, perhaps, but I think the anthology could have done without it.
“The Hand is Quicker” by Elizabeth Bear
“Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another”/”Sailing to Byzantium”
Bear employs themes from two Silverberg classics, specifically the notion of simulated reality. The setting is a dystopian that its residents don’t recognize as such, because they live in a world of virtual overlays that display show their surroundings idealized; this is a reciprocal system, in which people can determine how others perceive themselves as well as what they perceive. The problem is that this ability is restricted to taxpayers, along with other perquisites, such a police protection. Charlie, once a respectable citizen, has fallen from the ranks of the blessed. With no active taxpayer number, Charlie not only becomes an unperson but is forced to confront reality in its raw, unfiltered state, where life is nasty, brutish and short.
The river was a sewer. When I’d been here before – okay, not down here under the bridge, but on the bank above – it has been all sunshine and rolling blue water. What I saw now was floating milk jugs and what I smelled was a sour, fecal carrion stench.
More than Charlie’s sad individual fate, we see that the ubiquitous skins over reality serve to mask the toxicity of the environment in which the citizens obliviously exist, the disintegrating infrastructure that no one repairs because no one actually sees it. The spirit of the age is denial, which may have been what led to Charlie’s downfall.
Charlie as a character is perhaps more fortunate than deserving, with one real friend and one chance-met stranger. And here Bear throws a curveball into the plot. The stranger, a medical doctor who deliberately lives outside the system and ministers to Charlie’s injuries, functions as the wise oracle who tells us a great deal more about the deficiencies of the current state of affairs. Charlie, however, proves unworthy, a cynical move worthy of the master at his most depressing.
“Eaters” by Nancy Kress
One of Silverberg’s less well-known works, another in the depressing vein, it deals with genocide, mirroring the extinction of an alien species with the fate of Native Americans. Kress’s story is a direct sequel [aside from the fact that the original claims Tom Two Ribbons had no children]. Afflicted with guilt over his role in the near-eradication of the Eaters, natives of the world his corporation is terraforming, Tom has disappeared into unknown territory. Now his daughter Josie, Corporal Two Ribbons, has shown up unauthorized, determined to find her father and ignore any obstacles in her path. Josie is a figure consumed by anger – for everyone and everything.
“You hate me for coming here and stirring up your big mistake all over again, all that white-man guilt. Well, I don’t give a fuck for your guilt or your big mistake. You moved into the Eaters’ ecological niche, and if you can take it over, more power to you.”
Notably, Josie refuses editing, the process of selectively erasing problematic memories that was applied to her father.
Rather than “white-man guilt”, it’s the editing that this piece focuses on, the way this society deals with uncomfortable and inconvenient facts and emotions that might get in the way of Corporate goals, that effectively destroyed Tom. While Ellen, the narrator and Tom’s one-time lover, assiduously clings to her excuses – they didn’t know the Eaters were sentient, they did everything they could to save them once they did know – she lets slip the fact that extermination would certainly become the policy again if the Eaters turn out to threaten the arriving colonists. As, it seems, they might well, due to the unforeseen consequences of Ellen’s intervention. Kress doesn’t dwell on the point, but readers should be acutely aware of the parallel that mirrors Silverberg’s original. The story is a tragedy, the most deeply depressing piece here, despite strong competition from the Bear.
“The Chimp of the Popes” by James Patrick Kelly
“The Pope of the Chimps”
Another obvious title, again with the emphasis on faith. Long after the time of the original story, most of the humans on Earth have uploaded their minds [gathering] and bequeathed the world to the chimps. A few members of the species do still remain, however, and the chimps have taken the responsibility of caring for them – most need caring-after, since they tend to be either catatonic or deluded. For this reason, the chimps refer to them as the Popes. Now a new Pope has appeared in the community, a pretender far more convincing than the rest, who stirs things up in a disturbing manner, because it seems that he might actually be the Pope, or some reasonable facsimile. And he suggests that the gathering might actually be nothing more than death.
The focus here, however, is not on the humans but the chimps, imagining them as a fully sentient species [with bot enhancement] yet still distinctively Pan. They don’t want to be human, they don’t want to think too much about the human aberration called religion, but they don’t want their own guiding beliefs to be challenged. And they are just as capable of rationalization.
Helping humans join the gathered was the duty of all chimps. Tikko knew that she had teetered on the edge of sin, but she had not fallen. Eventually that realization lifted her out of her dread.
A fairly light work that deals nonetheless with the sort of weighty matters that have often engaged the master.
“Ambassador to the Dinosaurs” by Tobias S Buckell
“Our Lady of the Sauropods”
A sequel to the original dark comedy, rather less dark. It seems that humans have recreated a large number of species besides the dinosaurs, including neanderthals, and settled them in space. While some neanderthals have become suits, Johanna is more of a roustabout type, working heavy construction, getting drunk and thrown in jail for mayhem. But the Distributed Organization for Neanderthal Advancement doesn’t see it that way. She’s embarrassed the race.
“I’m trying to convince millions of people, hard working people, Johanna, that people like us are normal, hard-working citizens. That we are not a threat. We are not like the dinosaurs.”
On the other hand, DONA has taken the position that “As a resurrected species ourself, we could not in good conscience call for the second extinction of the dinosaurs.” The dinosaurs, in the original story, had developed a collective consciousness and gone on a rampage, breaking out of their own habitat. Now they’ve broken into the transport that’s taking Johanna to her new respectable DONA-sponsored job. Johanna has a better idea.
Although, plot-wise, this is largely a direct sequel to the original, it contradicts it in a number of ways. For one thing, Anne, the original Speaker to Dinosaurs, has disappeared from the scene, leaving her niche inexplicably open. And the saurian ambition as expressed in the original – revenge and slaughter – has inexplicably changed. As a whole, it seems rather cobbled-together, not so much an organic whole as a fusion of two parts.
Interzone #251, March/April 2014
Some strong stories here this time, ranging from depressing to horrific. I particularly like the Grant.
“Ghost Story” by John Grant
Nick gets an unexpected phone call from an old friend who tells him she’s pregnant with his child, that he did the deed in Scotland three months before – when he was home with the flu in Bristol. Fortunately, his wife Dverna is the understanding sort.
“And you weren’t there three months ago. It is incised into my brain that you weren’t there three months ago. You spent ten days either sitting on the lav or lying in your bed looking pale and deathly boring and telling me from time to time that, should this be your final descent into the abyss, I was to remember our love had been immortal.”
But this is only the beginning of the strangeness. Nick discovers that Lindsay doesn’t know who Dverna is, although she was at their wedding. And when he comes home, strangers are living there.
A poignant short tale. The explanation we get is the sort that we make up when explanation just isn’t possible. What matters here are the characters, drawn in brief masterful strokes, and the overall mastery of Grant’s prose, which also says some thoughtful things about love.
“Ashes” by Karl Bunker
The drawbacks of omniscience. The transhuman revolution has been a mixed blessing. AIs provided marvels to the world, but tend to wink out of existence for no reason untranscendent intelligence can understand.
But the AIs were ephemeral. They lasted only long enough to give us wondrous toys; not long enough to provide the adult supervision we needed to keep from destroying ourselves with those toys.
In consequence, there are few humans left, and now one less, after Neil’s friend Lucia has died. Given a small amount of her cremains [as the text points out, they aren’t really like ashes at all] he takes the suggestion of her AI friend to scatter them at a newly-discovered transhuman site. Lucia had loved exploring such sites, hoping to discover whatever wondrous secrets they must hold.
Confronting the linked mysteries of life and death, the author suggests they are irresolvable, even by mortal omniscience. Perhaps this is the very problem that makes the transhumans wink out – either because they have solved it, or because they realize they can’t.
“Old Bones” by Greg Kurzawa
In a post-apocalyptic world, Simon lives in a garret, going out only to check his rat traps. Things called mummers roam the streets; Simon fears them, but we don’t know what they might be. Once, long ago, he evacuated his family from the city, but for some reason, he came back.
He could not recall how long he’d lived there, when he’d first come, or where he’d been before. His memory had rotted through with age and the sameness of his days under the bruise-colored sun.
Then comes a knock on the door.
This dark dark fantasy is pure tone, and the tone is horror. The author explains nothing, leaving us alone to experience Simon’s fate, whatever it is. The fact that so much is mysterious only adds to the pervasive atmosphere of doom.
“Fly Away Home” by Suzanne Palmer
Fari is an enslaved miner on a corporate-owed hellhole, “The best damned blast tech on this rock”, although her wages are cut in half because she’s a woman. The only thing that saves her is the loyalty of her team, who benefit from her skill.
She and her team would spend short, hard lives out in the cold dark among the rocks and stars, until either the radiation, a mining accident, drink, skunk, or suicide repossessed their souls from the Owners for good. Not all women owned by Baselle Mining Corp
were that fortunate.
Then the corporate rep pushes her too hard, into a corner, which isn’t wise, because now Fari has nothing left to lose.
Here’s intense, desperate action as Fari takes revenge in dire circumstances. Perhaps too dire. We have the enslavement, we have the abusive corporate reps, we have the misogyny, the rapes, and besides all that, the oppressive religion. Seems like piling on. And I think readers would agree that Fari would be entirely justified in rebelling with even a fraction of the abuse we see.
“A Doll Is Not a Dumpling” by Tracie Welser
Yopu is a robot dumpling vendor who thinks a great deal about his job, his route, his customers. He thinks about the perfection of dumplings.
No one but Yopu knows about the thinking he does. Even if he had someone to tell, and he doesn’t, he has no words in his speech programming to convey his thoughts.
He thinks about the dirty girl who buys a dumpling, but not enough to realize she’s about to alter his programming, after which he can think a whole lot more. But the dirty girl only cares to have him do an act of political terrorism.
A short, depressing piece about the subversion of the innocent. We can only think it would have been a much better world if Yopu had been allowed to keep selling his dumplings and making people happy, as we know nothing more about the situation.
“This is How You Die” by Gareth L Powell
Apocalypse by pandemic, a brief personal account.
Black Static #39, March/April 2014
I take a look at Interzone’s horrific sibling and conclude that it is indeed a horror zine.
“Kebab Bob” by Ralph Robert Moore
Kebab got his name because of a construction accident, when a steel pipe was driven through him and three other men, permanently connecting them. When asked why they were never separated, he can only reply, “We don’t do that here.” “Here” being a Caribbean island where people can sleep on the beach if they don’t have jobs, which would be hard if a person is joined to three other useless bodies. The other three men appear to have little or no free will and move around with Kebab. He considers killing himself, except that just before he takes the fatal drink of poison, he sees a beautiful girl menaced by a bully. He intervenes, he falls in love.
Not nearly as surreal as the imaginative premise of the kebab man might suggest, the story is an essentially mundane one about unrequited love. The text, however, has strangenesses. At one point, the narrative slips into the first person, as if the narrator is and is not Kebab. And at the end, there are two alternative endings, neither one happy, which is in a way rather more strange than the premise, the claim the story has to being horror – that, and the somewhat graphic details of Kebab’s desperate attempt at achieving normality.
“Hot Feet” by Tyler Keevil
The narrator is at the beach and finds a severed foot floating in the surf, thus earning himself a brief and slight notoriety. Then more feet wash up. The narrator starts to take a proprietary interest in the phenomenon. Finally he starts trying to solve the case, as it grows cold, and it becomes an obsession.
I bought all the papers, watched all the newscasts, and kept tabs on the investigation. I felt like I had a personal stake in the matter. I mean, I’d found the first foot. That seemed significant, somehow.
The narrator is the key element here. From his voice, we gather he’s not of the sharpest intelligence, as messing with the cops the way he does is a quick way to finding yourself become a convenient solution to an unsolved crime. The conclusion, however, is ambiguous. The horrific element is the notion of a serial foot-severer, and the fascination such a notion might exert on an unstable mind.
“The Brack” by Vajra Chandrasekera
A ghost story. In a society governed by the demands of war [perhaps inspired by Sri Lanka?], Hanni is a wounded veteran who was assigned a refugee wife after his discharge. After she drowned, he applied and was assigned another, so that he now has both his living and his ghost wife in his apartment.
Amaia comes in and sits down in the same chair as Osane’s ghost. It’s a small kitchen and there are only two chairs at the table. Hanni looks at them overlapping, his first and second wives existing in the same space, and his eyes hurt a little.
We note that while Osane is described as having drowned, her ghost has a large bleeding gash in her head. Hanni appears to prefer Osane to Amaia, largely because, whenever Amaia serves his rice, there is always a stone that he bites down on, which makes him angry.
A well-crafted mystery, with clues carefully placed along the story path for readers to find. Nonetheless, some things do remain unexplained. The ghost provides an unambiguous fantastic element, central to the story.
“The Toyol” by Joel Arnold
After a cyclone destroys her home in the village and most of her family, Zeya takes an offer of work in Kuala Lampur, which reader will immediately find ominous.
Zeya thanks her and walks to the limousine. One of the men with guns holds the door open. The air conditioning beckons. The smell of perfume. She ducks and disappears inside. The door shuts behind her. Locks engage.
She is helpless in her situation, and there is no hope of escape until, in the course of time, Zeya is given an abortion by a sympathetic practitioner.
While there is an interesting and gruesome fantastic element drawn from folklore, the plot is pretty predictable. The real horror here is human cruelty.
“The Broken and the Unmade” by Steven J Dines
Saul Aaronson survived Birkenau only to end up living with his hate-filled, abusive son. He is haunted not only by his memories but the silent ghost of a boy he met on the train to the camp.
I am too afraid to turn around, to discover how many others have joined me inside the wagon. And it is the wagon. The walls may move, the walls may vanish, but they’ve been here inside me for seventy years and they’re not going anywhere.
We go through several points of view here, as the evil of events corrupts down the generations. Even the worst characters here are in their own way victims of it, inflicting pain on others for the pain they suffered themselves, vengeance by proxy. But alongside them is also the ghost of kindness and gratitude. Saul’s grandson Joshua, whom we barely see through the first half the story, becomes the focal point at the end. It’s hard to consider this a hopeful or positive story – too much happens that’s irretrievably bad – but it does point the way to positive choices.
“House Party Blues” by Suzanne Palmer
A diabolical presence possesses a house and its human residents, another abusive husband and his surprisingly strong wife.
He settles into the house like a new layer of skin, this fresh shell with room to grow and thrive, for a little while. He makes the pipes sing with his own heartbeat, dresses himself in the wallpaper, clothes himself in rug and woodwork, adorns himself with knickknacks and old family photos full of forced, unconvincing smiles.
Here is a fantastic presence that is central to the story and truly malevolent, although not as strong as it thinks it is, leading to another positive outcome. The presence would be more convincing without the presence of gratuitous tentacles. But the story’s center turns out belatedly to be “wife Carol”.
Sorting this fiction into dark fantasy and other is of course a highly subjective task. Fantasy can be horrific, but not all horror includes a fantastic element, which I regard as essential – and ideally this element is both dark in itself and central to the story. Interestingly, out of both TTA zines reviewed here, I think the strongest, darkest, most chilling and malevolent piece is the Kurzawa story from Interzone.
Of the works from Black Static, I find only half to be dark fantasy according to my definition, the best being the ghost story by Chandrasekera. I’d put the zine on my regular reading list if the rest of the stories were like that one. The Arnold and Palmer pieces also feature unambiguous fantastic and horrific elements. The Dines story has a fantastic element in the ghost, but it’s a benevolent presence, and the evil here is totally human, which slides it over to the nonfantastic horror side.
Flytrap #11, February 2014
A small-press little zine, “with teeth”, published irregularly and until recently on hiatus, from which it has reappeared in electronic form. There are ten fictions, most quite short, many with strong prose imagery. The stories are generally imaginative and a bit off-beat, both fantasy and SF. I’ll certainly take a look at the next issue, whenever it comes out.
“The Authenticator” by Greg Van Eekhout
The author returns to osteomancy here, as authenticator Barrett Mink visits a client who may have a magical bone coin to sell, potentially very valuable. But the client is difficult.
“Fifty million. Minimum. But that’s with provenance, comparable bone, proof that it’s not just magic, but unicorn magic. None of which you have, I’m afraid. You should have taken the million.”
A brief story of honesty and respect. I’ve always thought the osteomancy premise was a neat one, and I like this ethical character.
“On the Banks of the Fall Creek” by William Akins
A man lives in an origami house*:
. . . the rooms and layers he has imprisoned himself behind, each more translucent than the last, until the whole thing takes on the appearance of a coleopterologist’s specimen box, a steel and glass carapace pinned in place with a copper lightning rod.
We imagine the resident also as the butterfly, only trapped instead of pinned. The piece is mostly imagery, pleasing imagery for the most part, illustrating a story that isn’t explicitly told. The tone is melancholy, evoking a sense of ruin and decay, of threatened fragility, along with anger at the thugs who routinely vandalize the place – why, we will never know.
* I’m reminded of Heinlein’s classic, “And He Built a Crooked House”.
“Rocket Summer” by Sarah Grey
At age ten, the narrator’s older sister Tabitha builds a rocket model and promises her sister that they will one day fly together to Mars.
By early evening, her structure arched above us, a black and steel tower of measured segments whose wide legs pressed symmetry and order into the tempest of shag carpeting beneath.
Tabitha grows older and more practical, while the narrator clings to imagination and dreams, determined to make them real.
A story of growing up, and refusing to. More nice imagery here.
“The Secret Diary” by Cassie Alexander
Another child narrator. This one suffers a series of mysterious attacks as he grows up, attacks just as mysteriously thwarted.
I was angry at other people’s ignorance, that they did not have to live as I lived, a black rabbit perpetually racing across endlessly snowy fields, always waiting for a hawk.
Readers may come to suspect, as the narrator does, that his enemies have come from another time in order to stop him achieving some goal. Which would suggest that they are engaged in some sort of proxy war with the forces thwarting them. But we may also suspect that their activities have had the perverse consequence of causing what they intended to prevent – unless that was their intention all along. All of which is interesting speculation, even without factoring in the boy’s identity. The author does a good job with the hints in that respect, keeping them subtle yet sufficient.
“The Island of White Houses” by Alisa Alering
When the alluring supernatural island first appeared offshore, it seemed to have taken all that was good from Whitmuth town, cutting it off to make a negative impression of itself, an island of grim and cold and desolation. From time to time, individuals from Whitmuth have disappeared and are rumored to live now on the island; vague messages from them can sometimes be received. All her [?] life, the narrator has longed for the island, collecting all the information she can about the ways of reaching it, and haunting the shoreline until she finds an origami boat washed ashore. Abandoning everything else, she casts off.
I brush off the thought of Hanshet coming back to the house tonight after the clamming. Lighting the fire under the kettle in the brown kitchen, and sitting at the scarred table with the single slice of toast on the plate, staring at the wall where the photo of us hangs, taken by the boardwalk photographer who later disappeared.
Like the island, the story is an enigma that works equally well if taken literally as a fantasy or metaphorically. Like the treasure in a fairy tale, the island is not easy to reach; it moves about and throws up obstacles to divert the would-be immigrant, as if to prove who is worthy. Yet readers may suspect that, like the halls of elfland, the wonders of the island may prove to be an illusion that disappears on reaching it, revealing a reality more sordid than unfortunate Whitmuth. That the narrator, having reached her goal, will suffer bitter regret at what she gained and cast away. The author, however, doesn’t let us know.
“The Girl at the Edge of the Sea” by Melissa Marr
A rather mawkish bit of overused folklore.
“Lighting Candles” by Stephanie Burgis
A fairytale mashup on the themes of love and self sacrifice. Cassandra’s mother once gave up her swan wings for love, then wasted away in denial when her husband abandoned her. Cassandra devoted her own life to raising her younger sisters in the mausoleum of this dead love, until they both fled her to be with men whose love they must take on faith. Cassandra insists they are deluded; she urges her sister to light a forbidden candle and look on the face of her beast.
This premise has some promise, but instead the author is working up to a message.
“The Philiad” by Dominica Phetteplace
For a number of years, Phil has been visited by versions of himself as a boy. He is a bit jealous, as he never got to visit the future when he was younger. Finally, a much older version of himself materializes, revealing that he had sent the younger Phils to him.
He has a formula for the best Phil: An arbitrary Phil is denoted by Pi, where 1<i<∞. He denotes me as P++.
Unfortunately, Phil Plus has an ulterior motive.
An amusingly warped, slightly geeky tale.
“The Sea City Six: Where Are They Now” by Jenn Reese
Seeking out retired superheroes to assemble their story from fragments. Readers will have to do some assembling here. A puzzling puzzle story with a number of fragments still missing. Perhaps the narrators will find them one day.
“Pickup Artist at the End of the World Plus Stuffed Bunny” by Jessica May Lin
Alien invasion, marked in a series of sexual encounters. Other people might cower in hiding, but the pickup artist has his own way of coping.
The sex is always better when they both know the aliens might swoop in any minute and stab a foot-long sucker into their chests – that sweet, gutting sense of desperation and loss, when you are self-aware that every gasp of the cool, desert air is the last breath you might take.
Thing is, it can only happen the right way once, so he keeps moving on in a cloud of angst. Under the circumstances, we might think the character is justified in adopting a lifestyle of noncommittment, even if agreeing with him that it isn’t wise.
The aliens are interestingly repulsive, with mosquitoey feeding snouts, who puke up Pabst Blue Ribbon, which it serves them right for drinking.
2 thoughts on “Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, mid-March”
I don’t know if this is specified otherwise in the Dozois/Schafer book, but from the description the Bear story seems to be as much a tribute to “To See the Invisible Man” (1963) as to the two works named – “Soldier” being rather a talking-head story in the mode of Asimovian (think “The Dead Past”) cyberpunk, and “Sailing”‘s autumnal twilight being in itself already a rich evocation of the Nightwings mood.
Those were the two works named in the introduction to the story.
I have no doubt that several of the stories in the anthology reflect many others of the master’s works and favorite themes, besides those named. That’s the sort of thing that might give rise to a number of interesting critical essays, though it’s outside the scope of a review like this one.